Our Top 10 Things To Do in San Francisco is a Classic List!
If you are looking for things to do in San Francisco today, for this weekend, or at night – this list is sure to help you out! Even though we are Canadian and German, we’ve both been to San Francisco. Lisa’s favourite part was seeing the city from a plane in the middle of the night. The city was all lit up with lights and it was beautiful.
Eric visited back in 2015 to visit family living down in San Francisco. This was one week before heading to live/study in Edinburgh for the year. It was quite the quick timeline! In any case, we both did and saw A LOT of things when we visited separately – and now we really want to go back and explore together as Penguin and Pia!
There are lots of free things to do in San Francisco for you to check out. Other San Francisco attractions cost money (and some can be pricey) but they are definitely worth it for the experience. Since this is a list of the classic things do to, we won’t bother too much with the overly hipster things to do or the exotic things to do – but that’s coming in another post! So, if you’re ready – let’s get exploring San Francisco!
Things to Consider When Visiting San Francisco
Before visiting San Francisco, take a moment to consider a few of the details for travelling to the United States. From visas to car rentals, we got you covered!
Currency + Visas
As one would imagine, the currency in San Francisco is the United States Dollar. Their currency should widely available in currency exchanges in your home country, however, the exchange rate might not be that good. You could also consider taking out money when you are there, which is what we generally do.
Another consideration for travelling to the USA is whether you need to apply for an ESTA or Electronic System for Travel Authorization. Like the eTA for Canada, certain passports need to apply online for a “pre-clearance” that is linked to their passport. You can find a list of nationalities and how to apply at the official ESTA website with US Customs and Border Protection.
You might also be looking for travel insurance for your trip. If you are considering buying some, you can check here to get an idea about how much travel insurance for your trip could be. Eric has used World Nomads in the past for shorter trips and he was more than covered by their policies.
Weather and Climate
As for the best time to visit San Francisco, the weather can be a bit unpredictable. Generally, the best weather is from September to November. Fall actually has warm temperatures and far fewer crowds than in the summer.
That said, San Francisco is known to be rainy in the winter months but the spring in April is also an okay time to visit. April means the rain is practically over and the temperatures are warming up again. If you go in the “offseason” when it’s cooler, it’s usually a good idea to bring along a good, lightweight rain jacket (like Eric’s black North Face) wherever you go. That said, you can keep exploring without having to miss a beat with a clumsy umbrella!
Car Rentals in San Francisco
As for getting around, San Francisco is very hilly! You can walk to many places by the distances and the hills can be quite tiring! Depending on your travel style, you might consider renting a car in San Francisco. This is a great idea – especially considering the distances between attractions and the overall layout of the city.
Accommodation in San Francisco
If you’re looking for accommodation in San Francisco, you’ll certainly have loads of places to choose from. In another post, we are going to break down the neighbourhoods/areas of San Francisco to stay in. For now, you’ll have to have a look for yourself! The general rule of thumb is that that closer you are to downtown, the more expensive the hotels are going to be.
That said, there are lots of great areas and great guest accommodations available if you aren’t looking for a traditional hotel. You can check for the best hotel deals in San Francisco here.
Top 10 Things to Do in San Francisco
Okay, so here we are with our version of the top 10 list for things to do in San Francisco. They are in no particular order, so give them a read to see which ones you want to check out. We’ve also provided pretty photos for you to look at, as well!
Walk Across The Golden Gate Bridge
We have to start off with one of the things that San Francisco is known for across the world: the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is 227 metres high and shows off its famous red-orange colour. The bridge was inaugurated in May of 1937 and includes 6 lanes of traffic spanning the 2.7 km distance to connect San Francisco and Marin County.
The bridge is visible from very far away – which is probably also good since it can often be very foggy in San Francisco. In the article written by Eric’s friend Greg, we learnt that the fog in San Francisco is called “Carl the Fog”. Seriously.
You should definitely cross the Golden Gate Bridge if you get a chance. Eric did it by car while Lisa walked (we visited separately years apart!) If you do it by car, you’ll have to pay a toll if you drive towards the city, but you can also bike. For a completely different perspective, you could also consider taking a boat cruise that will pass underneath the bridge.
Have you ever heard of Alcatraz? If you are considering a San Francisco trip – the answer is likely! Alcatraz is a small island in the bay of San Francisco. Alcatraz was a famously notorious prison from 1934 to 1963 and is now one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions. Some of America’s best-known criminals such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud spent time there. However, there is much more history to Alcatraz than that so we do recommend that you check it out!
When Lisa visited San Francisco she went on a tour to Alcatraz. The tour left from the Pier 33 which is quite close to the popular Fisherman’s Wharf. Her group hopped on a boat and we were then brought to Alcatraz. They were lucky and had a really good tour guide that made the Alcatraz tour super interesting. Admittedly, the tour was a bit spooky so it’s maybe not for little kids but we would definitely recommend it!
Alcatraz Cruises is the official seller of the Alcatraz Island tour and ferry tickets. You can find their website here. On there you can read more about the different tours that are offered and buy your tickets. Be sure to book your tickets in advance since these tours are super popular and often sell out even days in advance. Don’t expect to show up there and jump on a tour right then and there. This might be possible in exceptional cases, but it is not the norm.
If you are looking for an alternative way to see the city (and find a package deal), you could check out the city and Alcatraz from the sky before your tour of Alcatraz Island!
Walk Through And Eat in Chinatown
Chinatown is definitely a top place to visit in San Francisco. The entrance (shown above) features the Dragon’s Gate which is very popular and built in 1970. You can find the entrance at Bush Street and Grant Avenue. The area itself is 24 blocks, one of the biggest Chinese communities outside of Asia.
As our local guide, Greg mentioned in his Insider tips for San Francisco article, there are some great restaurants in Chinatown if you want to try some Chinese cuisine. When Lisa was there she tried algae chips, visited a lot of Chinese small shops that sold pretty much everything, and had a great meal at a place that she can’t remember the name for. Make sure to get off the main streets and explore the smaller side streets as well!
To learn more about the area, you might consider hopping on a walking tour. You can easily join one if you purchase a hop-on-hop-off bus tour ticket. This one even includes Alcatraz so it’s a great bang for your buck!
Visit Fisherman’s Wharf
For classic views and a great touristy experience, visit the Fisherman’s Wharf area. This neighbourhood, located on the northern edge of the harbour, is a mecca for great food, photographs, and other entertaining things… like seeing the sea lions!
The Wharf itself is an area that is made of many piers and other attractions – including the famous Pier 39. You’ll find navy ships that you can tour, and other attractions like the Aquarium of the Bay, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” Museum, and the Hard Rock Cafe. Lisa went to the Hardrock when she visited and had a great time.
While you’re exploring the water, you’ll see that it’s also a popular area for many harbour tours to start and stop. If you are looking for a great harbour cruise, consider a sunset cruise that takes you under the Golden Gate Bridge! How’s that for a unique experience?
Climb Up Coit Tower
Standing majestically at the top of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower is another one of those classic attractions that make for a great photograph! The 210-foot tower was completed in 1933. The tower itself is designed of concrete in an Art Deco style and paid for by San Francisco socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit with the intention to “add beauty to the city she loved so dearly”.
Inside, the tower is designed with murals and beautiful frescos that have been created over the decades! These are located mainly on the ground floor which is free to enter. If you want the stunning 360-degree views of the entire area, it costs to ride the elevator to the top. Prices vary for residents and non-residents. You can find the most up to date prices at the official website for Coit Tower.
Drive/Walk Down Lombard Street
Lombard Street is this green curvy street that you’ve most likely seen before. It’s also one of San Francisco’s main tourist attractions. At top of Russian Hill (the area), you find the curviest – and most popular – part of the street which is actually much longer. Lisa has never driven the street, but she walked down the steps on the side.
The street itself is beautiful because there are lots of green shrubs and flowers – making it great photo opportunities. The view from the top when walking down also gives you a great view over the city!
Take A Photo Of The Painted Ladies
The “Painted Ladies” got their name because of their colourful facades. These wooden, Victorian-style houses were built around the turn of the century. Unfortunately, lots of the houses were destroyed in the fire of 1906 but some of them have since been restored.
The houses close to Alamo Square are the most popular ones – the reason being that they are part of the classic 90s TV show “Full House”. Fun movie fact: the filming location and address in the classic movie “Mrs. Doubtfire” with Robin Williams is about a mile away from here at 2640 Steiner Street.
Eric visited the “Ladies” back in 2015 and there were quite a few visitors in the park snapping photos and just generally enjoying the area. It was definitely cool to see in person having grown up watching those classic shows!
Relax In The Golden State Park
The Golden Gate State Park is the biggest inner city park in the country (approx. 400 Hectares). However, the park itself is not right in the centre of the city – it is located a little bit further out west and close to the ocean. In the park, you find attractions like the Conservatory of Flowers, the M. H. de Young Memorial, Japanese Tea Garden, and more! The park is beautiful. Eric even visited as it was the beginning point for a long hike to Baker Beach! There’s even a waterfall!
Ride The Cable Car
The Cable Cars are another very popular attraction in San Francisco. While they were super popular back in the day, today not as many lines run as in the past. The three lines that do run today are Powell/Hyde, Powell/Mason and California Street. The two starting at Powell go to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. The first cable cars started running in 1873 and they were named a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
Since San Francisco has a lot of hills, the cables make it possible to go up and down the steep hills. Lisa was riding on a cable car when she visited San Francisco with her bigger group. It was a great experience but the driver wasn’t impressed because they were holding up the car when they got on (too many people).
You need a ticket to ride – and you can buy the tickets from the driver, at the ticket machines, service points, or with the mobile app (if you have an internet connection). As of September 2018, a single ride ticket costs 7 USD. Check out this page by the SFMTA if you want to read more about how to use the cable cars.
Explore Baker Beach
Baker Beach is our last popular spot in this list. One of the main reasons it is so popular is because of the view. From Baker, you get a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Because of strong waves and unpredictable rip currents, it’s not safe for swimming. That said, there are lots of other things to do. The beach has public grill areas, restrooms, and lots of parking (although it can get congested at popular times).
Fishing is allowed from the surrounding cliff areas, and you can even pick up the Coastal Trail from the beach. There are a few little attractions in the area like monuments and park areas. One of which is the Battery Chamberlain – a historic monument and interactive area demonstrating the artillery defences for coastal San Francisco back in the day!
And there you have it – the top 10 things to do in San Francisco! What do you think? Have we nailed the classics or have we missed a gem? Ultimately, the city is an amazing place to discover new things and there are new attractions, restaurants, and areas popping up all the time! What is your favourite? Get in touch and let us know!
As always, Happy Top 10 Waddlin’,